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Student vs. System

The system should always support the learner, right? And when the system does not support the learner it may be time to rethink the system. On the other hand, sometimes the system influences how we think about and serve the learner. Hopefully, it provides a structure to support the work and opportunities for continuous improvement along the way.

By the way, I'm writing to learn here and would appreciate any thoughts and pushback you might have as you read.

I believe personalized learning has the potential to be so amazingly personal that it could ultimately push against the system it is occurring in. The problem is getting to this point will require a level of responsiveness that most systems will have a difficult time tolerating initially. We can create the conditions for child-centered change, but if we're being honest, our current response to radical ideas may be along the lines of "whack-a-mole." This notion reminds me of a quote by Sydney Harris:

"Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better."

This can be a tricky topic, so I'm going to lean into it using an unlikely story about a ping-pong table later in this post. First, I want us to consider where we stand when it comes to Student vs. System.

Have you ever noticed the ideas that make the most sense for individual learners and classrooms are oftentimes the same ideas that cause disruption across the system? In other words, new ideas and unconventional approaches can be exactly what's best for a smaller group of students, but very threatening to systems and procedures already in place.

For example, one person may propose a meaningful change or innovative idea they'd like to try in their classroom, but it might be met with resistance or disapproval from people further from the classroom.

Two Important Distinctions:

I don't use the phrase "further from the classroom" in a derogatory sense. I'm literally referring to a person's proximity to a specific group of learners on a daily basis. For the record, we need really great people who serve at every level in education and proximity to the classroom should not preclude a person from being learner-driven. (Some of the most dedicated professionals I know are serving in the district office, on the school board, or in state-level positions.)

Another distinction I wanted to point out is disapproval and resistance are not always negative. In fact, they are often conduits to even better work and thinking. However, this is not always the case and that leads me back to my quandary.

The Push-Pull of Personalization

It doesn't matter if we're talking about how we serve students, flexible seating, or field trips...what's meaningful to one group of learners may be problematic to other groups of learners. New ideas might be met with resistance for reasons related to scalability, optics, or simply because they haven't been done before (in education).

If I'm being completely honest, there have been some good reasons not to implement some of the most meaningful and innovative ideas our team has attempted in the past. This is the push-pull of personalized learning.


As promised, the story I'm about to share is about ping-pong, but it's really a microcosm of the Student vs. System dilemma I'm needing your perspective on.

Recently, a staff member asked if they could bring a ping-pong table into their classroom that could double as a cooperative-learning or work table. At face value, I loved the idea because it seemed like something that might be meaningful to students. More importantly, it seemed like something students who sometimes have a harder time loving school might look forward to. (Even when the ping-pong table was not in use, it could contribute to an inspiring feel in a classroom.)

Considering that conference tables that double as ping-pong tables are actually a thing with start-ups, the idea should not sound too outlandish, right?

I'm still wrestling with how I responded to the staff member who made the request. For the record, we have a process for furniture adoption in our schools and I wanted to adhere to that process for several reasons including student safety and leading with integrity. But in the spirit of transparency, I'm going to recap part of my response to the staff member.

I shared that the idea was awesome because students would probably love it. I countered this with something that seemed important enough to say, but still didn't feel right. I added that I wasn't sure how the ping-pong table would impact the "system" from several different angles, including equity and consistency. For these reasons, I suggested we talk about the possibility of having the ping-pong table in a shared space initially, as opposed to a classroom and offered to meet to talk about that option.

All of this has me thinking about the systems we maintain and the learners we serve. For me, excellence in leadership means we're supporting Learner-Driven Systems.

Questions to Support Learner-Driven Systems:

  • What leadership behaviors can we demonstrate to ensure our learners will continue to bring their best ideas forward (even if they might not be perfect)?

  • If every decision needs to be immediately scalable, how will we ensure we're nimble enough to remain relevant to the learners we serve?

  • To what extent are we living up to our mission, vision, and values, and are there multiple pathways to create more learner-driven schools?

  • What are the unintended consequences of standardizing personalization or innovation?

  • Is there a way we can say "yes" to an idea while still ensuring other organizational goals (e.g. alignment, consistency, scalability, budgets, sustainability)?

  • Could our commitment to student safety also be personalized, so it's not a barrier to the kind of culture we want to create?



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